House panel OKs drug czar reauthorization

After supporters agreed to alter a handful of controversial provisions in the bill, the House Government Reform Committee approved legislation Thursday that would reauthorize the drug czar's office for five years.

The panel approved the measure (H.R. 2086) by voice vote after supporters were forced May 22 to delay action in order to resolve concerns over several provisions in the bill. The law authorizing the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which sets policies aimed at curbing the supply and demand for illegal drugs, is set to expire on Sept. 30.

The committee adopted, by voice vote, a substitute version of the bill offered by its sponsor, Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., chairman of the Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources Subcommittee.

The substitute changed a provision in the original version of H.R. 2086 that some Democrats and drug legalization supporters said would allow the drug czar to engage in partisan political activities and to use government funding to pay for ads against ballot measures favoring the legalization of drugs.

Souder, however, said the provision was "blown wildly out of proportion by [drug legalization supporters] ... and some in the media to suggest that the committee's intention was to permit the use of the media campaign for activities that everyone in this room would agree are wholly improper and partisan. That was never my intention or the intention of the bill."

The new language included in the substitute would explicitly ban such activity. Souder said the bill also now includes a provision that would authorize the drug czar to conduct advertising aimed at preventing children from using marijuana, which he said was the intent of the original language in the bill.

The substitute also addressed concerns raised by the current drug czar, John Walters, and others with language in the original bill that would require the drug czar's office to use 80 percent of funding for the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, which is administered by the drug control office, on advertising. This requirement was reduced to 77 percent. The substitute also removed a provision capping non-advertising related media expenditures at 3 percent.

The substitute also does not include another controversial provision in the original bill that critics said would have allowed the drug czar to shift resources away from states that have medical marijuana laws.

While praising the changes, Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the committee's top Democrat, said he was still concerned that the bill does not address a requirement in current law that the drug czar oppose efforts to legalize medical marijuana, saying the requirement is a "distraction" that forces the drug czar to take time away from more important issues.

"For us to mandate it, it's a diversion and a distraction," Waxman said.

Waxman offered an amendment, which was rejected by voice vote, that would have eliminated the requirement that the drug czar actively oppose efforts to legalize medical marijuana. Instead, it would give the drug czar the discretion to decide whether to oppose such efforts.

In opposing the amendment, Souder noted that current law gives the drug czar discretion in how actively to oppose such efforts. He also added that he believes that the nation's chief spokesman against the use of illegal drugs should speak out against any effort that would violate federal law.

"The question is do we want a federal drug policy or a series of state and local drug policies," said Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va. "It seems to me we want a national drug policy."

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., offered and then agreed to withdraw an amendment that would have directed the drug czar's office to submit its ads to Congress 30 days before releasing them to the public. Given the amount of money being spent on such advertisements, Congress should have a chance to evaluate the ads before they are made public, she said.

But Souder opposed the amendment, saying lawmakers would be tempted to try to meddle with the ads or may leak them to the public, possibly hampering their effectiveness.

Maloney, however, noted that Republicans forced changes to ads related to the 2000 census after having a chance to see them before they were made public.

After several minutes of debate, Maloney agreed to withdraw the amendment after Davis offered to work on a compromise that might provide lawmakers with a more limited opportunity to view the ads before they go public.

The bill is likely to go to the House floor before Congress leaves for its Fourth of July recess, a committee aide said.

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